Cycling the Viking Coastal Trail — on a Brompton

Brompton-by-the-beach

Remember that lovely little magenta-coloured Brompton I received at Christmas? Well, she made it to the seaside on Friday (pictured above). It was her maiden voyage — and she performed superbly.

I’d been wanting to cycle the Viking Coastal Trail in Kent for years, but I’d never actually got myself organised enough to do it. But having a Brompton at my disposal meant it was simply a matter of heading to Kent on the train — all I had to do was (learn to) fold-up the bike and I’d be on my way.

So, on my day off last Friday, my Other Half and I caught the train to Margate from Kings Cross St Pancras, with overnight rucksacks on our backs, bike helmets on our heads and Bromptons neatly folded in our hands.

Viking Coastal Trail sign

The idea was to tackle the 32 mile route in a clockwise fashion over two days: Margate to Ramsgate on Friday afternoon, then Ramsgate to Margate, via St Nicholas-at-Wade and Reculver, on Saturday.

DAY ONE

Margate-to-Ramsgate

Distance: 10 miles

We didn’t leave London until after 12-noon, so by the time we got to Margate and had figured out how to unfold the bikes (!), it was almost 2pm. Fortunately, we weren’t in too much of a rush because we’d already pre-booked a hotel room in Ramsgate and didn’t have to check in until 5pm, giving us plenty of time to cycle the 10 miles along the coast.

IMG_2558

In fact, we didn’t set off until close to 3pm, because we had a bit of a potter along the harbour arm first (pictured above). We even snuck in a delicious half-pint of craft ale at The Harbour Arms, a microbrewery on the waterfront. Indeed, it was so relaxing sitting in the sun, nursing our beers, we half-contemplated the idea of spending the entire afternoon there and catching a taxi to our accommodation instead of cycling.

But that would destroy the purpose of our visit — which was to give our new bikes a little outing. So we mounted our Bromptons and headed east, following the well-marked Viking Coastal Trail / Regional Cycle Network 15 signs, which hugged the coastline.

Kent coastline

It was only a relatively short journey, but we took our time. We stopped frequently to take photographs or to admire the scenery. It was such a perfect day for leisurely cycling: blue sky, sunshine and a little nip in the air, although the strength of the breeze increased as the afternoon wore on.

There were also a few hills to tackle, mainly along the Eastern Esplanade, which proved testing on a bike with just six gears. But on the whole the route was largely flat, with just a few inclines. My OH may beg to differ.

Broadstairs

When we at last reached Broadstairs we went slightly off route and headed for the harbour. Here, we tucked into a very late lunch of freshly cooked hot chips, while we sat on white plastic chairs and admired the view — the colourful beach huts lining the seafront; the higgledy piggledy buildings hugging the curve of the bay; the distinctive-looking Bleak House (pictured above) sitting atop the east cliff, made famous by Charles Dickens, who holidayed there in the summers while he wrote David Copperfield.

Then it was back on the bikes for the final push to Ramsgate — only to find that we had to get off, because cycling is not allowed along the waterfront parade.

Ramsgate marina

When we did eventually get back in the saddle, we reached Ramsgate in ultra-quick time. We had about an hour to fill in before we could check in to our accommodation, so we headed to the Belgian Cafe on the seafront for a well-earned cherry beer. We drank it outside, as you do on a chilly evening in early March, and then, with hands and feet too numb to cycle, we walked our bikes about half a mile to our hotel, which overlooked the marina. The view from our hotel room (pictured above) topped off what had been a lovely, relaxing afternoon.

DAY TWO: MORNING SESSION

Ramsgate-to-Nicholas-at-wade

Distance: 10 miles

After a rather good night’s sleep in a comfy four-poster bed, and a hot cooked breakfast, it was time to continue our little cycling adventure. But first we had to buy a spanner: Other Half’s seat post kept slipping down and needed to be tightened up. Once that was sorted and we’d stocked up on some water, we were on our way: destination St Nicholas-at-Wade.

From Ramsgate the coastal trail followed the coast down to Pegwall Bay, past the distinctive-looking Pegwall Bay Hotel, before heading inland — and onto trafficked roads — at Cliffsend.

IMG_2557

A little further along and we came across the route’s namesake — the viking ship Hugin (pictured above), a replica of the ship that sailed from Denmark to Thanet in 1949 to mark the 1,500th anniversary of the invasion of England by two Saxon chieftains: Hengist and his brother Horsa.

IMG_2522

The heritage landmarks kept on coming: at Ebbsfleet we were wowed by a giant Celtic cross in the middle of a field. St Augustine’s Cross, erected in 1884, commemorates the landing close by of St Augustine and 40 monks in AD597. He was charged with bringing Christianity to England, from Rome, and it is said he preached his first sermon near this site and met King Ethelbert, whom he later converted.

From there we rode through Minster (where we compared vehicles with a 90-year-old chap on a mobility scooter who was intrigued by our fold-up bikes and wanted to have a long chat), Monkton and then the pretty little village of St Nicholas-at-Wade, our lunch-time destination.

IMG_2525

At the Sun Inn, we sat outside in the front beer garden, where I enjoyed a half-pint of beer, a pint of soda and lime, and a feed of rather yummy fish’n’chips.

DAY TWO: AFTERNOON SESSION

Nicholas-to-margate

Distance: 14.5 miles

But we weren’t even half-way yet — and the best was still to come.

Our next destination was Reculver on the coast: we could see the twin towers of the former monastic church on the horizon, some five miles away. The trail, largely traffic-free along this section, wound its way through fields of flailed maize and other crops.

IMG_2529

IMG_2531

IMG_2524

And then the road turned almost 90-degrees, crossed some flat marshland and the busy Thanet Way, before we found ourselves competing for road space with Saturday afternoon traffic, including the local bus service, all headed to Reculver and its architectural wonder perched by the sea.

IMG_2536

The imposing landmark of the Reculver Towers (pictured above) was a sight to behold. Until I’d researched this adventure, I’d never heard of this ruin before. Once a 12th century Anglo-Saxon church, and before that a Roman fort, it reminded me very much of Whitby Abbey — but far less Gothic.

From its position on top of a hill, we could see a seaside town to the east and presumed it was Margate: it was, in fact, Birchington-on-Sea. We reached it by cycling the sea wall, a relatively wide pathway shared with pedestrians, that seemed to stretch on and on forever (pictured below).

IMG_2544

We stopped for water and shared a snack (a Pret chocolate brownie bar if you must know), but it was too windy (and cold) to stay still for long. So we mounted the bikes, again, for the final few miles to Margate.

This was a quick section to ride, mainly because it followed the promenade along the waterfront, some sections of which cycling is banned between May and September (make a note if you’re planning to do this journey in the summer months). It was amazing riding along here, not least because one false move (or faulty brakes) and you could find yourself sailing off the edge and into the sea below (there are no safety rails), but also because it was so quiet — we barely saw another soul for three miles and had the entire route to ourselves.

When, at last, we reached Margate it was back to the Harbour Arms for a celebratory pint. Sadly, the outside seating was in the shade and because the sun was low in the sky it was too cold to linger long: once we’d downed our beers, we headed back to the train station, folded up our bikes and caught the 16:53 to St Pancras.

It was a lovely little cycling adventure, the perfect way to appreciate a mix of rural and urban sights, seaside towns and inland villages. It wasn’t too physically demanding either — though my OH, who hadn’t been on a bike in almost two years, may not quite agree.

Total distance: 34.5miles | Ride time: 5hr 34min and 17sec | Average speed: 5.7mph

Crafted Classique: a 100km sportive through the Suffolk countryside

IMG_0048

Am I heading in the right direction? Where is everyone?

These were the thoughts buzzing through my brain as I cycled along a relatively straight and unusually quiet stretch of road. I hadn’t seen a soul for the past five miles and I was beginning to wonder if I might have taken a wrong turn.

I was about a third of the way through the Crafted Classsique, a 100km non-competitive sportive through the Suffolk countryside, and the road ahead was completely empty. Ditto for the road behind.

But no sooner had I stopped to take a photograph (see above) and to check Google maps on my iPhone, than six cyclists whizzed by. It seemed I was on the right route after all.

Taking the plunge

Taking part in the event was something I’d been looking forward to for about six weeks. In July I’d been approached by Crafted, the event organisers, to ask if I’d like to take advantage of free registration, and after mulling it over for a week or  two — Was I fit enough? Could I get a new road bike in time? Would I be able to get to the start line by public transport? — I decided to take the plunge.

Ipswich-sportive-map

I had the option of two routes: a 100mile or 100km (64mile) route beginning and ending in Ipswich and taking in Woodbridge, Wickham Market and Orford. I opted for the shorter ride knowing I’d successfully completed the same distance during London Nightrider in June, so I knew I could go the distance. The big question was, could I do it on a ride bike with relatively little time to get used to a new riding position?

As it turned out, I could. Despite my thigh muscles seizing up at about mile 45 and my back beginning to ache a few miles after that, and the fact I was doing the cycle  alone, not in a team taking it in turns to ride into the wind as many others seemed to be doing, I was surprised by how quickly I completed the event. According to my bike computer, which only records the time my wheels are going around — in other words, not the times I stopped at traffic lights or got off my bike to stretch my legs, have a drink and a bite to eat — I completed it in 4 hours 42 minutes.

This was far below my “guestimated” time of around 6 hours. And far, far, far below the time it took me to do London Nightrider, which was bang on 8 hours. It’s amazing the difference a road bike makes!

Beautiful countryside

There’s no doubt that the best thing about the Crafted Classique was the scenery — a real mix of scenic towns and villages, pig farms, potato fields, rolling green hills, ferny glades, woodland, heathland and lanes lined with 10-foot high hedges and deciduous trees in full leaf.

And the roads were a good mix, too, though sometimes I felt a bit exposed cycling along busy B and A roads alone while Saturday traffic whizzed by at ferocious speed. And there was quite a lot of sand in places, too, a hazard I’ve never had to deal with before. I am grateful to the male cyclist travelling behind me who told me to “pick a line and stick to it” as I approached a huge drift at the bottom of a hill. It proved excellent advice and it held me in good stead for the duration of the event.

IMG_0052

What I really loved was cycling along Suffolk’s Quiet Lanes, as they’re called. Not only were they truly beautiful, leafy, green and very quiet — the only traffic I saw was the odd dog walker or pedestrian — but they also provided some respite from the wind, which seemed to worsen as the day went on.

Another challenge was tackling a few steep hills, but the gears on my bike worked a treat and I never felt the barest urge to get off and walk. Of course, there was the odd time I couldn’t have been cycling more than 5mph, but I made it to the top every time and felt a little surge of pride that I hadn’t even needed to stand up on the pedals. Honestly, it’s the little things.

A final push

Admittedly, I hit a metaphorical wall at about the 45 mile mark. I’d been cycling incredibly fast (for me) and at one stage I was on track to complete the event in four hours — I’d made the second official rest stop at the 30 mile mark in just two hours — but the wind and the new riding position was beginning to take its toll. I was becoming increasingly tired.

But with about five miles to go, my heart lifted, knowing I was near the end. It helped that I tagged onto a group of male cyclists (who were on the much longer 100mile route) and challenged myself to keep up with them all the way back to the finishing line. By this time it was mid-afternoon and the traffic in Ipswich was quite heavy. This meant lots of stopping at traffic lights, so if I fell back a bit I would always catch up with the blokes at the lights a minute or so later. I’m sure they had absolutely no idea that I was cycling along with them, but I just want to say thanks for the encouragement!

Thanks, too, to Crafted for organising such a wonderful event. I loved (almost) every moment of it, including the free (and delicious) espresso at the start and the free (and much deserved) beer at the end. The route was well sign posted and took in some beautiful countryside. Perhaps the only real fault was the fact that the second official rest stop had run out of snacks and water by the time I got there — not that it mattered, I’d brought along my own.

It was definitely worth the hassle of taking my bike on the tube and the train, walking 1.5miles through the dodgy back streets of Ipswich and staying in a hotel the night before.  Next year, I might just be brave enough to tackle the longer route — but only if I start training now!

IMG_0044

Total distance: 64.1miles | Ride time: 4hr 42min and 55sec | Average speed: 13.5mph

Official ride time | 5hr 26min and 46sec

Thanks again to Crafted for providing my registration free of charge.

An early morning cycle

Last week I clocked up some 90 miles by commuting to work every day, four of those days to Teddington, which is an 18 mile round trip. This week I’m working locally, which means there’s no reason to ride the bike: I simply saunter across the road and am sitting at my desk 10 minutes later.

However, I’ve got a 100km sportive coming up this weekend (I’ll write more about that tomorrow), so need to do the odd training ride or two lest I lose fitness (I’m already worried I’m going to struggle to do the distance). So, this morning I hauled myself out of bed at 6.10am (despite every bone/nerve/muscle/brain cell in my body protesting at the very idea of leaving the snuggly comfort of my duvet) and was on the bike 20 minutes later.

The roads seemed slightly busier than my last early-morning cycle (on August 14) and the weather was a little cooler. In fact, there was fog in Richmond Park, although it burned off quickly, but I was just happy to see the sun come out: it’s been raining solidly for the past two days and I was beginning to think I might need to build an ark.

There were loads of deer about — lots of young ones — but I wasn’t really in the mood to stop and take snaps: I simply wanted to get around the park as quickly as possible, so I could get home, have a shower, gobble down some breakfast and then head to work. Judging by the number of mamils whizzing by me, I wasn’t the only one in a hurry…

Total distance: 15.85miles | Ride time: 1hr 14min and 48sec | Average speed: 12.7mph

Getting used to the new bike

IMG_0028

I’ve been having plenty of fun on the new road bike, trying to squeeze in leisurely rides to Richmond Park whenever I can to get used to riding her.

With each new outing the riding position gets easier and more comfortable. And I think it’s safe to say I’m relatively au fait with the gears, although I still have to concentrate when I want to go down the gears because they don’t seem to be set up intuitively — by which I mean I tend to click them the wrong way, which momentarily catches me out. I have to remind myself to move them the opposite way I think they should be moved.

The best thing, however, is how quick and light she is. After years of cycling on a heavy steel hybrid, the speed — nay the zippiness — is a revelation. I used to slog around Richmond Park while cyclists on road bikes whizzed by at twice the speed; now I’m doing the whizzing and it feels great!

IMG_0026

My first proper cycle on her, however, was a bit of an adventure. I headed to Richmond Park on a sunny Thursday afternoon and almost collapsed from the shock of climbing Sawyer’s Hill in the heat (it didn’t help that I still wasn’t familiar with the gearing). Indeed, I stopped at the top, pulled over to the side and flopped into the grass to recover. Mind you, I wasn’t the only one doing this. Further down the hill I spotted two other cyclists doing the exactly the same thing!

Then, once I got back on the bike, I lost my drink bottle about two miles down the road when it bounced right out of the cage and into the long grass. I was going uphill at the time and there was lots of motor traffic behind me, so I couldn’t stop and rescue it. (I’ve since changed my bottle cage, so this can’t happen again.)

IMG_0034

The next time I took her out I actually got out of bed at 6am to do it. Anyone who knows me will now pick themselves up off the floor from the shock, because I’m not a “morning person”. However, I was spending the week working locally, so the only way I could fit in a cycle was to do it early in the morning before my shift started. So I did a quick loop of the park and was back home by 7.45am, giving me time to have a shower and breakfast before my working day began. It was a brilliant way to start the day, especially as the roads at that time are so quiet — although the cars do tend to be a bit more aggressive, almost as if they are used to having the road to themselves and how dare a cyclist get in their way or hold them up!

IMG_0040

The third outing was a leisurely afternoon cycle to Teddington. I was using it as a “dry run” to see if it was commutable through Richmond Park, as I had three days’ work there later in the week. It was a really lovely cycle but not especially quick — mainly because there were plenty of deer out and about and I had to stop three times to let them cross the cycle path ahead of me!

According to my Garmin phone app, here are the stats from those rides:

Date: 7 August | Total distance: 18.7 miles | Time: 1:47:10 | Average moving speed: 10.5mph | Calories: 783

Date: 14 August | Total distance: 15.8 miles | Time: 1:19:15 | Average moving speed: 12mph | Calories: 716

Date: 19 August | Total distance: 21.5 miles | Time: 2:03:18 | Average moving speed: 10.5mph | Calories: 961

The joys of cycling in Richmond Park: open space, deer and variable weather

March is a funny month for me. I'm working from home doing a big edit job for a think tank, which means I miss out on my normal commute. I have to force myself to get out and do exercise, otherwise it would be quite possible to not leave the house for days at a time. In fact, when I did this job last March I only seemed to leave the house when I required food or needed to post a letter!

And of course, when you have to make time to cycle it is all too easy to look out the window at this time of year and find excuses not to go outside. It's too cold. It's too wet. It's too windy. It's snowing. I don't like the look of those clouds. The traffic will be too busy. If I leave now I'll hit the school run. If I leave now I'll get caught in the lunch time rush. You get the idea.

As a consequence I have only cycled three times this month, which is pathetic, but they were three longish cycles to Richmond Park, so you can't say I'm not putting some hours in the saddle. And while I might be missing out on my regular commutes to the office in south London (an easy way to clock up 40 or 50 miles per week), when I work from home I love that I can take two hours out of my day to go on a cycle and just make up the time afterwards.

Open-space

And of course nothing beats the joy of cycling through Richmond Park — once I've survived the occasionally stressful five mile journey to get there. It's all the rugged fields and trees and beautiful vistas and the whole feeling that so much space evokes — you could be in the middle of nowhere, not in one of the world's biggest and busiest cities.

Cycle-path-and-deer

At the moment the park is filled with gorgeous deer. And while I'd love to stop and take photographs of them all, I have to be selective about it — sometimes I don't want to ruin my momentum on the bike or stop in an awkward place where other people can't get by. But on Tuesday, when I took the above photograph, I didn't have much choice. The deer — mostly females with their young — crossed the path ahead of me. By the time I'd fumbled around, taken off my gloves, extracted my iPhone from my pocket, unlocked it and turned on the camera, they were safely on the other side.

Deer

I saw those same deer today, almost in the same place. A little further down the road I came across a herd of giant stag and tentatively cycled by them, hoping they wouldn't suddenly stampede across the road or starting clashing their antlers together in a display of power. These animals are so huge they scare me. There are signs all over the park warning visitors that they are wild animals and shouldn't be approached. Fortunately, the stags today ignored me — they just continued grazing by the roadside while I pedalled by.

Cloud

The weather has been kind of weird, though. When I cycled last week it was shirt-sleeves weather. It was roughly 15C and the sun was out and the sky was blue — absolutely perfect for cycling.

But when I went cycling on Tuesday it was damn cold. I wore two pairs of ultra-thick woollen socks and my feet were still numb by journey's end. It was also incredibly windy, which meant I cycled very slowly — and my attempt to go up Sawyer's Hill, the notoriously steep ascent I normally avoid by cycling round the outside of the park on the Tamsin trail, was snail like. I practically crawled up it in the lowest gear, while MAMILS on expensive road bikes whizzed past.

Today, by contrast, was somewhere in between: there was no wind and the sun was out — but only for a bit, as the photograph above shows. I'd stopped at this pond for a little breather after doing a circuit of the park and the next thing I know the sky went very dark, a chill descended and I was convinced that was a snow cloud coming in. I hurried the six miles home, hoping to avoid the expectant downpour, but not a single drop of precipitation fell.

Here's some stats of my cycles:

Tuesday March 5, total distance: 15.98miles (25.72km) | Moving time: 1hr 28min 11sec | Average moving speed: 10.9mph | Calories: 671C [Tamsin Trail, warm and sunny]

Tuesday March 12, total distance: 14.69miles (23.65km) | Moving time: 1hr 18min 13sec | Average moving speed: 11.2mph | Calories: 622C [Sawyer's Hill, cold and windy]

Thursday March 14, total distance: 16.21miles (26.09km) | Moving time: 1hr 10min 54sec | Average moving speed: 10.3mph | Calories: 721C [Sawyer's Hill, extra 'loop', mild and sunny]

A 20-mile cycle taking in Richmond Park — twice

IMG01807-20120410-1200

The freelance life means I sometimes have weeks where I have so much to do I don't know if I am coming or going, and other weeks where I have nothing scheduled. This week I'm at a completely loose end, so what better way to make the most of a sunny morning than going on a quick cycle?

Well, I thought I was going to go on a quick cycle. But then I got to Richmond Park and on a whim I decided to exit out of Sheen Gate to see where it would take me. It took me to Mortlake, along Cycle Route 4 and a very busy high street, and then I had the option of heading back home via Barnes, or going on to Kew and Richmond along the river. I chose the latter.

This meant what could have been a fairly comfortable (and quick) 8 or 9 mile cycle turned into more than twice that!

But it was lovely out. I followed the Thames path, which is as bumpy as hell in the stretch between Kew Gardens and Richmond, and then had a hairy 100yd experience slipping and sliding through an inch of mud on cobblestones near the Richmond waterfront. I suspect there was a rather high tide last night, because the waterfront in Richmond, right through until Ham, was littered with flotsam and jetsam and in the unsurfaced parts there was plenty of sticky, slippy river mud, too.

I ended up cycling to Ham House, then heading inland to Richmond Park again  — my second time in the same morning — via Ham Gate. Then I cut right through the middle of the park and exited at Roehampton Gate, before heading home via Barnes. This meant I had effectively cycled one giant 20 mile loop!

IMG01811-20120410-1240

As an aside, I was delighted to see many of the trees are in bud (see above) — it won't be long before I'm cycling through leafy green tunnels again.

Total distance: 20.75miles (33.38km) | Ride time: 1hr 59min and 56sec | Average speed: 10.3mph | Top speed: 21.1mph